Canadian Households Waste More Food Now Than They Did Pre-Covid

It turns out, we're still bad at planning meals in advance.

metal compost bucket
Food that could've been eaten, once upon a time.

@hawexperience via Twenty20

Before the pandemic hit, Canadian households threw away approximately 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of food per week. Now a new survey from Dalhousie University's Agri-Food Analytics Lab says that number has gone up since March, with households tossing roughly 5.1 pounds (2.3 kilograms) of food weekly. 

This may not seem like a huge increase on an individual level, but considered across the entire Canadian population, it amounts to an additional 44 to 53 million pounds (20 to 24 million kilograms) of organic waste being discarded every month, since the start of the pandemic. 

Such enormous quantities of waste come at a steep price. The annual cost of wasted food to Canadian households has gone from CDN$1,766 (US$1,347) to just over $2,000 (US$1,526), totaling $2.95 billion (US$2.25 billion) for the entire country. That doesn't include the cost to municipalities having to deal with the additional waste, transporting it to landfills and compost facilities. 

The Findings Feel Counterintuitive

Aren't people supposed to be getting better at reducing food waste, considering how our pandemic-induced lifestyles have become more home-based and frugal, with fewer conflicting events on the calendar? Even a hopeful recent article in the Washington Post suggested that waste-reduction habits are becoming the norm in the United States, thanks to our enforced time at home. 

The survey suggests, however, that poor planning continues to be at the root of the issue, with Canadians (and doubtless many Americans, too) stockpiling food and then failing to eat it. From the survey: "The most selected reason was 'food is left in the fridge or freezer too long' (31.3%), which is likely indicative of poor planning behaviours." 

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie who was involved in the research, attributes this partly to some people having to shop and cook regularly for the first time. He told the Star

"If you’re not familiar with preparing your own food, cooking your own food, doing your own groceries ... it was challenging for a lot of people. We’re kind of reconfiguring our relationship with food."

Other reasons for waste included family members not finishing their plates (picky kids, anyone?), lapsed expiry dates, and preferring to eat fresher food than what was on hand. Some people (10%) said they threw away food out of fear of contamination by COVID-19, but this was only heard from respondents over the age of 40. To this, Charlebois said, "That’s the big shocker for me. You could see that really people aren’t necessarily trusting of the science related to food safety and COVID."

Despite the survey results, more than half of Canadians think they're wasting less food since the pandemic, and many cite behavioral changes that they've adopted since the start of the pandemic to curb food waste. "Eating more leftovers" was a common response (34.5%), as was "Looking through the refrigerator and cupboards more often [to plan meals]" (24.4%) and "Preserving, freezing, and canning food more often" (22.5%). Quebec was the only province where the most popular answer to this question was "We have not changed anything since the beginning of the pandemic" (29.2%).